February 3, 2019

KAMBHAMPATY | Make a Lot of Bad Work

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You need to make a lot of bad work before you can make any good work. I believe this to be true for people in any creative field.

The designer of the Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, Kenji Ekuan, created more than 100 prototypes before settling on the one that we see today. The widened base weights it perfectly, making it difficult to accidentally tip over. Two spouts located on opposing sides of the cap allow air to continuously fill the lost space as the contents are poured out, ensuring that you don’t get that annoying stutter that occurs when you pour a glass of wine a little too eagerly. The spouts are angled inward just right, so that no excess sauce would drip onto your table. The glass fits naturally in your hand, and its shape is distinct and recognizable. From each iteration he created, he saw something new that the bottle was missing. As a result of 99 bad designs, Ekuan created something that has transcended a mere condiment bottle. In 2012, The New York Times Magazine wrote “With its imperial red cap and industrial materials (glass and plastic), it helped timeless Japanese design values — elegance, simplicity and supreme functionality — infiltrate kitchens around the world.” It was added to the permanent collection of the New York’s Museum of Modern Art. And, today, what image pops into your mind when you hear “soy sauce”?

I don’t mean to preach “don’t give up, young creative, your break will come!” Nor do I mean to tell you your work isn’t as bad as you think it is. Your work probably is bad, and this is meant to tell you that making bad work isn’t a waste of time. The short story you poured your heart and soul into that came out cheesy? The roll of cringeworthy photographs you developed after hours of shooting? The failed startup you wasted your first two years of undergrad on that your parents still ask about? These “bad works” are part of the path to making good works. They’re unavoidable. Think about how you’re able to tell these works are bad in the first place. It’s because you have what NPR’s Ira Glass calls taste. You see what makes a William Eggleston photograph beautiful. You see how Steve Jobs didn’t just revolutionize computers, he changed human interaction entirely. You see why Charles Bukowski’s words have saved lives. You can recognize what’s good. And because what you’re making doesn’t hold the same intangible magic you see in the works of your idols, it frustrates you.

The people who never end up making any good work give up somewhere around here, after a single failed startup or a few perfunctory attempts at narrative fiction. But, you… you have still have your taste.

What stops people from continuing to create, apart from the self-loathe that comes with making bad work? Why does bad work make us hate ourselves in the first place? We either channel self-judgement or fear the judgement of others. Bad work frustrates us not just because it doesn’t lead to success, but because, we creatives, for whatever masochistic reason, look to our work as manifestations of who we are. My work is bad, therefore, I suck too! If Ekuan had stopped at a wobbly soy sauce bottle, that’s all he would’ve been. But, if you keep pushing forward, maybe your work will be good. Maybe you will then see yourself as the good work you’ve created. You’ve already made bad work that you can’t retract; don’t let that be all you’re remembered for.

The second main reason people seem to stop is because of the response from others. People talk behind your back and scoff at your work. They’re jealous that they cannot shake their own fear of starting creative work like you’ve been able to. Their only way to deal with this envy is by reducing your work to garbage in their minds. Or, THEY HAVE NO KNOWLEDGE OF THE PROCESS AND LACK THE VERY TASTE THAT YOU HAVE. These are the people that just don’t get it. They look at an Eggleston photograph and say “it’s just an airplane drink.” They don’t see his mastery of colour or eye for the beauty in the mundane that you are able to recognize. These are the people whose opinions do not matter at all. They have no taste.

So, don’t hate yourself. Don’t let others have the satisfaction by giving up at first sight of their meaningless scoffs. It’s not an easy path, but you’ve already started on it. You also probably didn’t choose it. There was some urge within you, from the darkest depths of your heart, pushing you to create (seriously, who would voluntarily choose this life?). Make the bad work that leads to good work.

There’s not really any turning back now. What kind of soy sauce spilling world would we live in if Ekuan had just given up after the first few tries? I’d rather not dwell on this thought too long- it’s the stuff of my darkest nightmares.

Anna P. Kambhampaty is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The Imagined Life runs every other Monday this semester. She can be reached at akambhampaty@cornellsun.com.